CONTRIBUTORS

Use the Internet, but don’t let it use you

Posted Sept. 26, 2013, at 1:20 p.m.
OpArt: George Danby

It’s pretty likely you’ve seen, heard of or conversed about the dangers of the Internet: identity theft, cyberbullying, pedophiles in disguise. Those are, shall we say, the worst case scenarios. They are the highly visible tip of the electronic media iceberg.

Today let’s look at what’s beneath the surface.

Let’s face it. We are involved in the biggest communications revolution since Johannes Guttenberg came up with the printing press, making literature available to people who weren’t priests or nobility.

I want to help start more conversations about the subtle ways in which electronic media can change the ways we think, feel and relate to each other.

I’ll start with a story. About a month ago, I felt angry about something someone said to me but was unsure I had the right to be angry. It was itching me like a black fly bite. Don’t you hate that? I talked to a trusted friend who affirmed my feelings and helped me develop a way of dealing positively with my experience. Things went well.

What if we’d handled it by email? That would have been one impoverished exchange.

Without the nuances of tone, gesture and facial expression, a lot would have been missing. There would have been room for ambiguity. Many times in electronic communications, speed and efficiency are valued rather than nuance and depth.

If we’d emailed, it would probably have stopped with one exchange. My friend wanted me to do something constructive rather than stew or move on too quickly. I could have replied, “Sure,” electronically and done nothing.

Because she was looking me in the eye with a steady gaze, hedging and fibbing became nonoptions. And a gentle touch on my arm that said, “I know you can do this,” became the clincher.

My friend took a risk of caring.

A lot of times, speaking our hearts and minds takes us out of our comfort zones. Do you ever feel like you’ve done something wrong or hurt someone you love? Apologizing can be quite the challenge, can’t it? How about when you change, and a loved one continues to see you as you were? Or what if you want to protect a friend or family member from the consequences of dangerous actions?

Confronting one another is one of the hardest parts of being human, right?

The Internet offers a way of making these challenges easier. We can email or text or post rather than speak in person or on the phone. Maybe you want to end a relationship. Changing your status on Facebook can do the trick antiseptically. You could be starting on a slippery slope, though.

In her book “Alone Together,” Sherry Turkle says humans are relying more on technology and less on each other. As electronic communication becomes more the option of choice, more in-person ways can seem harder and fraught with danger.

Just remember this: The distancing protects us not only from tears and yelling but hugs and affirming eye contact.

I had the precious beyond-measure gift of my friend’s undivided attention. It made me feel significant and loved. When someone important to you drops everything else to be mindfully with you, doesn’t that just warm your heart and soul?

We don’t just want this. We need it to thrive, to be fully human. Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who studied human development, listed human needs beginning with the most basic like food and shelter. Connectedness or belonging came not far above and was essential to self-actualization or fully living, rather than just existing.

When we communicate electronically we tend to multitask, right? We can be splitting attention between television, music, texting, posting and a whole lot more. It can mean we aren’t really focusing on any one of them. I know that if I tried to communicate with my friend, and she seemed distracted, and I sensed I was just a fragment of what she had going on, I would feel sad and diminished.

Do you ever feel that way when you communicate through social media?

Here’s the bottom line. We aren’t any more likely to return to pre-computer days than 15th century folks were to go back to having monks copy manuscripts by hand. Some changes are unstoppable. What we need to do is mindfully keep what is good while defending ourselves against what is dangerous.

If we don’t, no one will.

I hope we can protect and cherish, rather than lose sight of, what makes us all truly human.

Julia Emily Hathaway is a mother of three and vice chairperson of the Veazie School Committee.

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